Cambridge Outdoors

playing, learning, and being outdoors in Cambridge, Mass.


Airport Owls, Hooting Toddlers: A Feathered Friend in Cambridge

Owls visited our fair city last weekend and kids were there in droves to see them.

Licensed wildlife rehab maven and Massachusetts resident Patricia Bade (given the punchy name “Owl Woman” by her Penobscot elders before she could say “boo”) brought her un-releasable saw-whet owl and screech owl to Maynard Ecology Center for a family program on Sunday, February 9, 2014. The venerable Friends of Fresh Pond Reservation and the Cambridge Water Department sponsored the visit. Much hootin’ (the three- to seven-year-olds) and hollerin’ (the babes in arms) resounded through the halls of the center, housed in the basement of Neville Place, an assisted living community within spitting distance of Fresh Pond.

Compared to the snowy owl, these species are diminutive. Bade spread her arms to illustrate a snowy’s wingspan—five feet. She’d gotten up close and personal to an injured snowy owl brought to her recently, though it had expired upon arriving her doorstep. “She was magnificent,” reports Bade, who examined the owl afterward.

Snowy owls such as the one Bade examined have appeared in large numbers this year in Greater Boston.

The first consideration in an upswing sightings of any predator (such as the foxes seen in residential areas of North and West Cambridge earlier in the fall) must be the status of their prey population. There are multiple factors, however,  behind the snapshot of  what’s plentiful and what’s not in a “food web” (think food chains, intersecting) at any given time.

The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology reported that by late November 2013,

the first wave of owls was making headlines (literally: see this article in the NYT and this article) in even the greatest metropolitan areas of the Northeast. Numerous visuals show the distribution of these movements, and one project has sought to take advantage of this unique opportunity to track the movements of these birds (check out Project SNOWStorm). It appears that a combination of factors may be responsible for this season’s invasion, but the jury is still out as to what is causing this influx. Are these movements the results of an overabundance of rodent prey items in portions of eastern Canada yielding a bumper crop of young Snowy Owls that are dispersing en masse?

Climate is also the elephant in the room.

The Cornell Lab continues,

Or is the movement we are seeing part of a much larger set of changes occurring in the Arctic related to rapidly changing climate?

via Cornell Lab of Ornithology: Brief Notes on Some Late 2013 and Early 2014 Movements.

Whether the elephant is merely in the room examining its cuticles rather than causing tremors we may not know. Science doesn’t allow for leapfrogging, but it does allow for educated guesses, labelled as such.

In her response to an adult asking why so many snowys showed up at Logan Airport this winter, Bade said the landscape there resembled their home turf—the tundra. There’s a little more to the story, however. These tundra mammal-predators, during the period December through April, apparently travel to openings in the Arctic sea-ice to feed on waterfowl, who are in turn using that type of environment because they can feed there. The 2013-2014 “irruption” of Hedwig and her crew at places like Logan, Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark airports may represent a signal departure from that practice, perhaps by necessity rather than by choice.

Put yourself in Hedwig’s shoes, and wonder whether, like the itinerant snowy owls, increasing numbers of humans will need to seek something that “looks like home.” Wonder whether humans will need to take refuge from our coastal cities or our failed fields of plenty. Wonder whether, in the coming decades, human migration by necessity rather than by choice, will be on the upswing. Even if that possibility seems like something you can’t swallow—dystopia doesn’t, admittedly, go down well—keep those snows in the mind’s eye. That complexity, incorporating vast flocks of many species, the worldwide bird migration patterns interdependent on food webs; the operation of those food webs in cities, towns, rural areas—whether in airport, marshland, watershed, or suburb, it behooves adults to try to grasp a piece of this puzzle, and to get our children hootin’ and hollerin’ like owls and coyotes and slithering like snakes in the meantime.


Logan Airport shows the way as snowy owls alight

Amid reports that in the last few days a Snowy Owl has perched at the Boston Museum of Science (on the Cambridge side), easily viewed by passersby, I offer this news on air traffic and owls in one city.

Logan Airport shows the way as snowy owls alight – Metro – The Boston Globe.


Two Natural History Events in Greater Boston coming up on 1/31 and 2/2

WHAT ART THOU, LITTLE BIRD?
Developmental Mechanisms for the Origin and Evolution of Birds
Lecture by Arkhat Abzhanov, Associate Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University

THURSDAY, JANUARY 31, 6:00 pm
We might think robins are simply a common backyard bird, but actually they represent one of the most unusual, successful, and abundant animals (the order Aves) in Earth’s history. The new science of evolutionary developmental biology (“evo-devo”) sheds fascinating light on the evolution of birds’ highly distinct skulls with toothless beaks, and on how modern birds can generate a seemingly endless array of beak shapes.

Part of the Evolution Matters Lecture Series
<http://www.hmnh.harvard.edu/lectures-classes-events/evolution-matters-2013.html>
Free and open to the public. Geological Lecture Hall, 24 Oxford Street.
Free event parking for evening lectures in the 52 Oxford Street garag

Winter hike on Saturday, February 2nd at the Stony Brook Reservation.

Image

Fox or Coyote Scat, January, Fresh Pond Reservation

BNAN staff, Jessica Mink from the Friends of Stony Brook Reservation and DCR rangers will guide you through the winter landscape. On our hunt for signs of wildlife in winter we will visit a newly planted orchard and explore a new garden site within the reservation. So much to explore and lots of opportunities for wildlife discovery throughout. We will have hot cocoa available at the end of the hike. ,

RSVP to info@bostonnatural.org


Of Crows and Kids

“Children are beautifully adapted to learn about many possible worlds.”
from The Wisdom of Not Being Too Rational – ScienceNOW.

A psychologist at the University of Cambridge who studies bird cognition has looked at how crows solve problems, the latest in research showing they are rather intelligent. Two of her graduate students, Lucy Cheke and Elsa Loissel, have replicated three of these experiments with children. Yes, the crows and the children are comparable on two of the puzzles. Children and crows are tied.

On the final puzzle, the crows met their match. The puzzle was designed to mimic a physically impossible task. Children weren’t stymied; crows were. Children 1, Crows 0 on this one.

Imagination is the leavening. Too bad so many adult humans meet a roadblock when it comes to understanding children’s imaginations, populating them with airbrushed princesses, frontier-cowboy heroes, and cartoon versions of birds and all the rest of the natural world.

Postscript: I’ll be getting myself to the Museum of Modern Art’s montage of how we’ve viewed childhood from afar. You?